November 8, 2007
The Prayers of Clarence ThomasBy Charles J. Sykes
Predictably, the mainstream media focused on the anger in Clarence Thomas's searing new personal memoir. A front page story in The Washington Post was headlined: "Justice Thomas Lashes Out..." and described how Thomas "settles scores in an angry and vivid forthcoming memoir."
There is certainly anger in this book, along with passion and often brutal self-criticism. But the media has largely overlooked another crucial aspect of the story: the role of prayer in Thomas's life. Perhaps because the media remains uncomfortable with public displays of faith, or simply because they don't get it, the word "prayer," does not appear in either the Post's or the New York Times' reviews of "My Grandfather's Son."
That is a curious omission, given the decisive place Thomas gives specific prayers in the narrative and the window that his choices open onto his character and life.
For example: when he first meets his future wife, Virginia, she asks him how he copes with controversy and the constant drumbeat of personal criticism. He responds by taking out of his wallet a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that he says he recited daily:
During the confirmation ordeal (but before the testimony of Anita Hill) he describes how he would leave the Caucus Room "tired, tormented, and anxious," and how he and his wife "bathed ourselves in God's unwavering love." Thomas took special strength from Psalm 57, "I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings/ until the disaster has past..."
But the dramatic climax of his story comes after Hill's testimony. In some of the rawest passages of the book, he describes the aftermath of the high-tech allegations that threatened to destroy his reputation. Thomas holds nothing back: he admits that he was thrust into the "dark night of my soul" - utterly broken.
The future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court describes this harrowing scene: "I lay across the bed and curled up in a fetal position, tired beyond imagining."
This is the central crisis of the book and of his life. According to "My Grandfather's Son," Thomas realized that the only way to survive humiliation was humility.
He had been extraordinarily proud of his work at the EEOC and Department of Education, but now he wondered:
And then he quotes from the "Litany of Humility" by Cardinal Merry del Val:
This not mere boilerplate or the sort of posing for holy pictures that has become a cliché of modern politics. Turning to this particular prayer is a turning point in Thomas's ordeal. In interviews since the publication of the book, Thomas has described the litany as his favorite prayer. And it is surely one of extraordinary power -- and value-- for anyone who ventures onto the modern battlefield of ideas or politics.
Much of the power of the litany comes from what it undoubtedly cost its author. Humility did not come easily to Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, who was himself an exceptionally active and controversial figure. In 1929 Time magazine described him as the "scion of an ancient Spanish family, grandee by birth and inclination, rich, sophisticated." As Secretary of State under Pope Pius X, he was a central player in the arcane and byzantine world of Vatican and European politics in the years before the First World War.
It is difficult now to imagine how powerful the young cardinal was at the time: he not only acted as acted as foreign minister for the Vatican, but was also as the censor of Catholic morals and scholarship. One Vatican insider said that his job as Secretary of State "imposes on him definite and precise work, but his administration of it allows him infinite interference in all matters."
That also made him a lightning rod. Critics who were reticent to criticize the saintly and popular Pius X, unloaded on the cardinal, who bore the animus for all of the political and religious controversies of the Church.
Like Clarence Thomas seven decades later, Cardinal Merry del Val wrestled with the twin demons of pride and slander. And like Thomas, he carried the scars of a hostile media.
In 1920, The New York Times magazine carried a 3700 word screed under the headline: "The Indiscretions of Cardinal Merry del Val."
The cardinal was not only "intransigent," the Times sniffed, he was also pushy and full of himself. The Times' quoted a waspish Italian prelate who sniped that
The Times laid out its own indictment:
After the death of his patron, Pius X, the cardinal retreated from the limelight and spent much of the rest of his life in seclusion, during which, presumably, he came to grips with pride, power, fame, envy, disappointment, calumny, and humility.
He is now largely forgotten, except for the litany, which Clarence Thomas has reintroduced to a new generation. It hangs on the wall of his chambers in the Supreme Court: